Magic Items as Plot Devices

14 October, 2011

With the Sword of Amaros in my hand at last, I shall restore the Kingdom of Amaros to its era of glory!

Inspired by the October 2011 Blog Carnival: Making The Loot Part Of The Plot.  I will be talking about working magic items into a game as plot devices.  This can be done in a variety of ways:

Shield and Spears

Shield and Spears

Mechanics, this may be the weakest choice, but it will appeal to many players.  Mechanical plot items gain power as quests are completed, pieces are recovered or other such things.  These are very straight forward, complete plot point, get a better toy.  This does lead the risk of turning into an arms race as the other players are likely to want items that advance or other items of equal power.

Now, the mechanics hook can also be used with any of the other types of ‘plot devices’ but it need not be the primary aspect in the other cases, but -honestly- everyone likes getting better toys for their characters.

Plot, these are good for over arcing campaign themes, such as: to defeat the Lich of Oga-Thalli you must recover the Silver Sword of the Hero Komm, to open the Sealed Gate to the Lost Realm of Xarantha you need to find the Silver Key of Dreams, and such like.  There are items needed to moved the plot forward (or conclude it), sometimes they have other abilities as well but their primary function is to allow the plot to move forward.

These items are good in that they are immediately obvious in their use (“The Spear of Magenta Dragon Slaying?!  At last we can deal with the Wyrm of Jelly Town!”) but at the same time, they can be perceived as being McGuffin’s at best or part of a railroad at worst.  So, care must be taken in the use of such items, it is usually better if the players/characters can come up with their own solutions but sometimes everyone just wants the plot to move forward and a (literal) plot device is the way to do so.

Story, these are items that are tied into the story of a campaign world, such as the Sword of the Last Duke of Averjan or the Book of the Crimson Quartet.  They can be tied into the ongoing plot of the the campaign if the player/character is interested in doing so.  They are potential story and plot hooks, if that is what people wish, otherwise they are just another treasure or item found.

Now, story items can be a bit depressing from the GM’s perspective if you have a great story that you want to use, but that no one wants to follow up on.  The solution is usually not to try and force the story but to find out what stories the players want and see if you can tie it to the one you want to use.  But using story-linked items is always handing control of that plot to the players because they may or may not choose to follow up on them.  The advantage is that when players become invested in a story-based, they are the one driving the plot forward and you know it is a plotline they are interested in following.

Obviously, it is possible to mix these styles of items giving priority to one aspect or another, even adjusting the item’s focus as its role in the campaign changes.  For many items this may be the best route, what is initially a basic plot device may become important to the story of a character.  Adapt, adopt and improve* the item as best suits the campaign and the players’ interests.

Looking for more thoughts on magic items?  Try Putting the Wonder back into Wondrous Items.

*The motto of the Round Table.

Note: Image from the Open Clip Art Library.


  1. Excellent post. I’ll have to see about joining this month’s carnival too.

  2. Good post. I like the idea of items having stories, but like you say, they should probably just be part of the background unless the characters get interested.

  3. […] Holland offers Magic Items as Plot Devices in which he breaks down this variety of plot device into three types, then considers the strengths […]

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